Language barrier? Digital solution: Transforming cancer care at Western Health

A revolutionary new App, complete with disease-specific QR codes, is set to transform how patients affected by cancer at Western Health access information about their care.

Professor Justin Yeung, colorectal surgeon at Western Health, came up with the idea with a team of clinicians for the upcoming web-based App, Leaflet, to assist day-to-day clinical practice in one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse areas in Australia: Melbourne’s western suburbs.

Western Health is nestled in a melting pot of different cultures where 40% of the population do not speak English as their first language, a fact Professor Yeung says is visible daily in the clinic.

“There's such a large range of English proficiency, which then really affects how we explain things to patients, how much time we spend with them, and it can mean we also need to engage with loved ones and relatives, which is challenging because while they mean well, they are not professional interpreters proficient in specialist medical terminology” he said.

“For someone who can speak and understand English to a reasonable level, it may take us 20 minutes to explain their treatment plan. For someone from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, that time may be doubled.”

It was this mix of an exponentially growing population, increasing cultural and linguistic diversity, and a COVID-enforced move to digital solutions that led Professor Yeung to first ideate Leaflet.

“Three years ago, I’d have to give a patient a diagnosis of cancer, then I’d find they speak a language with only a few interpreters, so by the time we’d get an interpreter it would all be very rushed. I wanted to give them an up-to-date, accurate leaflet [hence the app name] to illustrate their journey and what to expect, but I’d end up drawing pictures on a piece of paper for them to take away, but because they speak a different language, they’re often reliant on their children to help them take in that information, so it was all very clunky.”

Professor Yeung saw the new wave of digital technology solutions prompted by the pandemic as an opportunity.

“I realised it’s possible to get live information that's updated by the day and by the hour.

"So I got thinking, can we provide something digital that people can access easily from anywhere, with information that's up-to-date and relevant to their next step, is easy to understand and within their own language?”

That initial thought bubble led Professor Yeung to connect with Drs Edmond Lu, Arkan Youssef and Raymond Wu, members of MBSI, a Melbourne-based Bioinnovation Student Initiative from the University of Melbourne, secure funding from Western Health, and develop the new web-based App alongside digital agency TAG.

The first version of Leaflet is set to launch in March in English and three other languages (Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese), identified as the top three languages spoken by people with no English proficiency.

Leaflet contains four initial modules, including a colorectal cancer patient journey, bowel preparation medication and Permcath module – a renal dialysis catheter – to prove the app’s utility not just in processes, but treatment management and outcomes.

Professor Justin Yeung is the Head of the Department of Surgery, Western Precinct, University of Melbourne, a consultant colorectal surgeon at Western Health, and a member of the VCCC Alliance Equity Advisory Group.